How to Make It Big in Hip-Hop When Your City Pretends You Don't Exist

Young artists are finding creative ways to carve a space in Portland's lively—if fractious and often ignored—hip-hop scene.
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Swiggle Mandela, KayelaJ, and Karma Rivera are three Portland rappers making major strides in an often-overlooked scene.

Swiggle Mandela, KayelaJ, and Karma Rivera are three Portland rappers making major strides in an often-overlooked scene.

On a Thursday night last September, Makayela Johnson is making over Makayela Johnson. People from high school and Facebook know her as the person who ran track, graduated valedictorian, and worked in the cafeteria at a nearby hospital. What they might not know, though, is that she’s now an up-and-coming rap star.

It's just past 9 p.m., and she's home from a sound check that took longer than expected. The front door of her mother's ground-floor apartment in northeast Portland is open, and hip-hop music drifts into the room from a neighbor's boombox. A rapper since she first performed in her second-grade talent show, Johnson just quit a graduate program in family counseling to pursue her career as KayelaJ, a queer artist who is, according to her Instagram bio, a "lyrical genius." The decision to leave the program is so recent that, a few minutes later, her aunt asks how school is going.

When I arrive, Johnson is sequestered in the bathroom, her eyelids painted in aquamarine shadow. "People have always known I rapped, but it's the difference between people knowing you rap and actually seeing you as that," she says. "I really worked on my image and the way I represent myself." Johnson twists her braided hair into two buns and secures each with a garland of metallic stars, the kind used for wrapping gifts.

In the living room, Tami Johnson, her mom, and Jode Lopez-Garcias, her aunt, are watching the end of Titanic. A nephew, recently released from prison, sits quietly on the couch behind them. "You better blow that damn whistle, girl, before they leave ya," says Tami to Rose, talking to the television.

After KayelaJ finishes her hair, everyone except the nephew piles into the car to head to Kelly's Olympian, an old dive with motorcycle decor in an empty part of downtown. Since December of 2014, Kelly's has hosted a monthly hip-hop showcase called The Thesis. Tonight, KayelaJ is headlining. On the freeway, Tami talks about her fear of flying. Lopez-Garcias reminisces about working on cruise ships that would dock in New York. KayelaJ doesn't say much as she chauffeurs the family across the bridge. At Kelly's, she pulls up to the curb and lets the car idle. In big, block letters above us, the marquee reads, "The Thesis ft. KayelaJ." Tami claps her hands from the front seat. "That's tight," says KayelaJ and leans over the steering wheel. "I gotta take a pic of this."

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Don't Call It a Renaissance

Some local press have dubbed the recent growth of hip-hop in Portland a "renaissance," a word suggesting that the culture in the city was once dead and has been given new life. Over the years, many venues catering to hip-hop—like the Beauty Bar, Blue Monk, Fontaine Bleau, and Someday Lounge—have closed. Portland, though now known as a progressive city, has a history of racism dating back to Oregon's inception as a state, when it barred black people from entering. More recently, landlords have partaken in redlining and have required higher rents from black and Latinx renters than from white renters. The construction of several high-profile projects—like the hospital where KayelaJ worked—has pushed black communities to the city's outskirts.

Several years ago, the city saw a rise in gang violence and club shootings. There was a fatal incident at Club 915, which has since closed, after a bouncer was shot and killed. Other shootings around that time included one at a sports bar and another at a strip club called Skinn with a history of murders. And in 2014, Rodney DeWalt, the black owner of Fontaine Bleau, where one man had been killed in a shooting, sued the city for unfairly monitoring, targeting, and citing his venue; as a result of the suit, DeWalt's liquor license was revoked, and the club was evicted from the space, according to court documents. At the time, DeWalt argued that clubs with predominately white clientele are not forced to close after shootings; the city defendants' motion to dismiss for relief for race discrimination was granted.

Officers responded to the uptick in gang violence by rounding up club owners and hosting a seminar on how to spot a gang member. Hip-hop clubs began prohibiting red clothing, a color associated with the Bloods. According to the Shake Bar Facebook page, the bar bans matching clothing in red, blue, green, and orange (all gang-related colors) on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as bandanas and athletic attire. It also prohibits all weapons. These sorts of regulations have been in place at Portland clubs for years: In 2006, when I was in high school, I frequented an underage club in Portland that prohibited the rap song "Laffy Taffy" and coats with fur-trimmed hoods.

"There are venues that straight up won't play hip-hop shows," says Bo-Mandela Cordeta, a Portland rapper who goes by Swiggle Mandela. "They just started discriminating against the genre in general from incidents that might have happened in the past."

Despite the waning number of venues, hip-hop in Portland has seen an increase of coverage in national publications like The Fader, more local showcases, and new talent moving in. Longtime industry watchers have attributed the heightened interest, in part, to the recent rise and popularity of Aminé, a Portland-born rapper whose given name is Adam Aminé Daniel. Aminé performed as an industry outsider on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2016. A write-up in The New Yorker described him afterward as someone who "stands out," and an earlier piece in the New York Times pegged him as someone who desperately wanted to leave his hometown to make it big (he now lives in Los Angeles).

Some Portland hip-hop artists think Aminé's celebrity and relocation have fueled the narrative that Portland hip-hop is non-existent, or at least floundering—the sort of backwater you want to escape if you possibly can. A Portland-based rapper named Michael Gaines, who goes by Figure8, tells me that Aminé "doesn't really represent the city."

"For as much national exposure as the scene is getting, I don't think it's a renaissance," says Cliff "DJ Klyph" Stanford, a hip-hop producer and radio host in the city. "Stuff has been happening in Portland before [artists like Aminé] got on the scene."

Jenni Moore, who covers hip-hop for Portland Mercury, argues that the scene is thriving. "I think everyone's really sick of the narrative of Portland hip-hop as this underground, struggling thing," she says.

The "renaissance" narrative may be tired and inaccurate, but for decades, the community got the sense that city officials wanted to silence rap, which in turn affected what music and culture were available to the public. "What's bringing the gangs here? It's the format, unfortunately," said Officer Derrick Foxworth Jr. to club owners during the seminar on how to spot a gang member. "Gangs don't go to country bars: It's the hip-hop, the rap. If you're going to have that playing, you need to consider how you do your searches."

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Not 'Portlandia'

To get the word out that hip-hop is alive and bigger than ever in Portland, artists in recent years have formed a few monthly showcases. Arguably the most commercialized event is Hip Hop Day, a now-annual concert started in 2015 by an artist named Idris O'Ferrall, also known as StarChile, who died of cancer last year. The event takes place at city hall in collaboration with the mayor's office and has helped bring a wave (or at least a sizable ripple) of promotion to local hip-hop. Piggybacking off Hip Hop Day, Travel Portland, the local tourism agency, tapped Moore, the Mercury writer, to write a promotional piece about the city's lively musical options. Moore says it's silly the city didn't start advertising its hip-hop scene years ago.

"It would be better for the city as a whole if we used hip-hop as an attraction," she says. "Like, why is it being left out of the rest of the city when it's clearly here but it's not like the Portlandia stereotypical tourism shit? So, it just kind of doesn't exist, which I think is way worse."

Other cities in America have also long grappled with overlooked hip-hop scenes, including Baltimore, where the writer Lawrence Burney has examined this question for years. In a 2013 piece for Noisey about the city's "New Wave of Rap," Burney wrote, "Coming from a not-so-major city, it's easy to carry the burden of thinking where you come from has some sort of unique curse and that no one makes it."

The catalyzing change for Portland's hip-hop scene was an incident at the Blue Monk in 2014, when several inspectors responded to concerns about capacity. One inspector counted 155 people within an 85-person occupancy. He asked the people crowding the stairs waiting for tickets to leave, according to the filed report, which Kari Schimel, the assistant fire marshal, read to me over the phone. The inspector had written, "Some were upset that we shut it down and I tried to explain this was not the case and I was trying to reduce it to safe numbers and we were fine with the show continuing." At one point, at least 15 police officers were called, and the venue decided to shut down the show. Stanford remembers seeing the police lights blaring and thinking, "Here we go again." One of the performers, Illmaculate, a rapper of Native American descent, took the mic to address his frustration about hip-hop shows being shut down and about attendees being targeted based on clothing. "It's really not based on hip-hop per say, but what's a popular venue," says Schimel about the inspections, noting the fire department doesn't take a stance on music genres. "When you look at hip-hop and something like blues, it comes down to popular, you're going to have a different vibe and a different type of crowd."

"It was a lot of weird stuff at the time; it was a very difficult time for being black or doing urban music in the city," says Mac Smiff, the founder of The Thesis, who tells me how, in 2014, fire inspectors also showed up at Kelly's Olympian, one of the few hip-hop-friendly venues left in Portland. (The inspectors didn’t shut down that show, but people who had bought advance tickets were denied entry, and at one point, two police officers arrived.) "All the spaces were excluding anything that looked remotely hip-hop as being an issue through some kind of procedure and policy and saying, 'We're trying to stop gang influence.' It didn't matter if you had an artist singing with flowers, it was still a gang problem."

After the Blue Monk incident, the city auditor conducted a review of police policies relating to hip-hop. The report noted that hip-hop in Portland was having a "resurgence" and published some revealing quotes. One sergeant said, "At rap shows, the gangsters come in at 1:20 [a.m.]." The report, however, provided few concrete conclusions beyond the need for more communication between officers and the hip-hop community.

Talks did occur, but challenges for the hip-hop community haven't disappeared; they've only shifted. As the scene gains momentum, some performers continue to feel left out by event organizers and the press, who they say favor well-known artists or the old school, hyper-masculine rapper.

"There's such a boys' club when it comes to hip-hop," says Maarquii, a queer, gender-non-conforming artist. Like KayelaJ, Maarquii believes straight men in the industry get a serious leg up. "I don't really care about getting co-signs from men, and often because of that I am excluded."

Some artists say they sometimes feel this push-pull between preserving their authenticity and bending to the rules to get noticed. "There's so many sub-genres now that you can create a lane for yourself, but at the same time you do have to fit into those lanes," says Terrance Scott, a longtime Portland rapper known as Cool Nutz. "You do have to have a certain look, a certain sound or aesthetic that I think some of these guys are having to sacrifice their integrity or vision to fit into a box to achieve some type of success."

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'Everyone's Always Arguing'

The fourth-annual Hip Hop Day takes place on a drizzly Sunday in August. The street in front of city hall is blocked off for spray painters, a snowball machine, and a step-and-repeat. Over the course of the day, I see a man in a Pendleton vest, an older hippie in a tie-dyed tee, people with piercings, skateboarders, and a Bill Gates doppelgänger wearing a shirt that says, "Hip-hop is dead." Damian Lillard, the Blazers' star point guard, is there. So is the new police chief, a black woman named Danielle Outlaw, dressed in civilian clothes—aviators and heart-shaped hoop earrings.

The line-up this year drew heat from some artists for being stacked too straight and male. About halfway through the event, a rapper named Karma Rivera takes the stage to begin her set and announces she's donating her time to Maarquii. She later tells me this was a "political move" because Maarquii hadn't been invited to perform.

"It's sad because a lot of the top D.J.s and the gatekeepers to hip-hop, they're the main ones that are planning some of these huge events," says KayelaJ, who says she also wasn't asked to perform, though she isn't surprised, given how new she is on the scene. "They still kind of have that misogyny that first started when hip-hop was brought about." Maarquii strides in wearing a baby-pink backpack and begins singing about "the best dick in town." At one point, Maarquii notices a mother covering her child's ears.

Others feel left out too. The night before Hip Hop Day, Figure8 and Swiggle Mandela host a release party for their new EP, Fig & Swig (sold with a free marijuana edible), in Troutdale, a suburb east of Portland. At first, Swiggle tells me he doesn't care that he wasn't asked to rap at Hip Hop Day and that "hip-hop doesn't belong in city hall." But as he smokes a joint on the lawn, he turns melancholy. "I think it's OK that hip-hop is getting commodified in Portland, but because I get excluded, I feel a certain way," he says. "Everyone's always arguing and talking about who is going to make it first."

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Before KayelaJ's headliner at The Thesis, two all-male groups perform. The audience seems unimpressed with their head-banging and aggressive jumping, which begin to feel like desperate displays of masculinity. After one of the guys takes off his shirt, a woman yells, "Ain't nobody wanna suck your dick!" But the mood lightens when KayelaJ gets on stage. The audience of about 70 tightens into a mosh pit. The venue is just over half full, and there's little room to move up front. KayelaJ opens with her single, "Kayela to the MF J," and the crowd sings along with her. She then previews some songs from Homage, her first mixtape, in which she raps over beats from famous female artists like Eve, Foxy Brown, and Cardi B. Since she came out in 2016—she told her friends first and her mother last, after they'd returned from a trip to the grocery store—KayelaJ's become more confident rapping about sex and relationships ("I'm trying to eat her taco like it's Tuesday"). Tami, dancing happily in the front row, nods her head in approval. "She good. She good," she says.

After the show ends, the audience trickles outside, where the usual Kelly's Olympian crowd is smoking cigarettes and drinking beer on picnic tables. KayelaJ says goodbye to her friends on the sidewalk. Tami and Jode wait for a ride home. The energy from the night lingers, but in Portland, that doesn't mean it'll transcend the city. "You can be popular in the hip-hop scene and book shows but never really go anywhere," says Smiff, the Thesis founder. Before she leaves, amid the chatter and praise, a man on a ladder quietly removes KayelaJ's name from the marquee.

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